Isolation and the image of God

Bishop Karen Oliveto’s Mahle Lecture offers insight on bridging divides, within United Methodism and elsewhere.


Lucas Englin

Bishop Karen P. Oliveto addresses the crowd in Sundin Hall during Feb. 25’s Mahle Lecture.

Kelly Holm, Senior Reporter

Like many people, United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto sees increasing division and polarization in all arenas of life, from politics to family to her own denomination. As the United Methodist Church (UMC) appears to be hurtling toward a split over LGBTQ rights, she delivered Hamline’s 12th annual Mahle Lecture on the subject of “Imago Dei in an Age of Selfies, Separations and Schisms.”

“In an era when technology is creating a global village, why are we becoming more clannish and xenophobic?” Oliveto, the bishop of the western US-based Mountain Sky Conference, told the Sundin Hall crowd on Feb. 25. “As a bishop of the United Methodist Church, I have to say I am crushed that the church that has literally raised me in the faith, that has taught me of God’s love, will most likely experience a schism.”

A year ago, the UMC’s General Conference voted to affirm doctrinal policy against the ordination and marriage of “self-avowed homosexuals” within the church —isolating individuals such as Oliveto, the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop. General Conference will take place again this year, and a number of proposals to split the church among conservative and progressive factions have been floated.

As this debate looms large, Oliveto turned her eye to the larger fractures within society, both interpersonal or political, and how they relate to the Christian doctrine of imago Dei, the belief that humans bear the image of God.

“If we are to love God, the one in whose image we are made, we must also love other humans who share with us that same image of God,” Oliveto said. “When we deny our likeness to God, it makes it easier to fail to recognize our connection to one another. This lack of connection, and inability to claim our mutual possession of the image of God, is a slippery slope, then, which leads to the breakdown of the human family and results in fractured communities.”

Left unchecked, Oliveto says, such isolation leads to a self-absorbed state that inhibits people from being aware of their actions’ impact on others. She developed a metaphor for this thesis focused around, of all things, selfies.

Oliveto illuminated this metaphor by showing a video featuring people falling down or damaging their phones while in pursuit of the perfect selfie. She cited a study suggesting that more than 250 people have died in selfie-related accidents but asserted that the true dangers of “selfie culture” were psychological.

“One becomes preoccupied with the self at the expense of others, breaking a connection that God set in motion at the beginning of creation. When we focus on the self instead of how we’re connected, we ‘other’ those who aren’t like us,” Oliveto said. “When we fail to see them as… bearing the image of God, a cancerous evil grows and fosters the flames of hatred and turns sanctuary into sacrilege.”

Timing-wise, Oliveto’s lecture coincided with Hamline’s pursuit of formal alignment with the UMC’s pro-LGBTQ arm, the Reconciling Movement.

This academic year, student org Love Boldly has passed a resolution to make Hamline a Reconciling university through HUSC, the Faculty Council and the Staff Association. At the time of this article’s writing, the resolution sits with the Board of Trustees. As it has had a 100% rate of passage so far, first-year Emily Hilderbrand, Love Boldly’s student coordinator, expects it will pass this final legislative hurdle.

“Once it’s passed we have to fill out a really quick and easy application, and we just have to write the dates of passage and the rates of passage,” Hilderbrand said.

General Conference, meanwhile, convenes in Minneapolis from May 5-15. Then, further deliberation regarding the denomination’s future will take place.

“I’m hoping the church recognizes that every child of God possesses the image of God, and will come to a bold affirmation that all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity are welcomed,” Oliveto said.